3 December 2006

Radioactive poison – a lesson for our times

By Liam Carroll

So, the personalised radiological weapon, capable of killing just one person, has finally arrived. The death of Alexander Litvinenko by radiation poisoning is said to be the first attack of its kind.

It has made headlines. It has created a climate of fear in which more than a thousand people have called the NHS helpline to seek assurances that they have not been contaminated by being in the same place at the same time as the now dead Russian.

Radioactive contamination has a relatively short, but bleak history. Indeed radioactive contamination begins with the discovery of radioactivity itself – Marie Curie, the principle pioneer in the field of radioactivity died from aplastic anemia, almost certainly due to massive exposure to radiation—much of her work had been carried out in a shed with no safety measures being taken, as the damaging effects of hard radiation were not yet understood.

But, in truth, this tragedy is not new. The hospital picture we have all seen of a healthy young man transformed in days into a pale, weak shell of humanity, dying from something invisible in his blood, is an image of the after-effects of radioactive contamination.

More well known incidents – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl – are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Indeed, deaths attributable to the Chernobyl incident are still occurring, some twenty years later. Nearly 400 farms in the UK, not to mention those in other countries, remain contaminated and are prohibited from rearing livestock for the human food chain.

There are many other incidents; reactor fires at Windscale in 1957, and Three Mile Island in 1979 resulted in substantial releases of radioactive substances. Atomic-bomb testing by the United States more than half a century ago converted the Pacific island of Bikini from a tropical paradise to a radioactive wasteland. Today, Bikini and other islands in the Marshall Island chain remain hazardous for living organisms, and those who once lived on Bikini remain Pacific nomads, as do their children and grandchildren.

A serious question emerges from these grim facts; are these incidents relics of the past stemming from a lack of a proper understanding of the dangers that we were dealing with – as in the death of Marie Curie – or is our continued relationship with nuclear materials condemning us to a serious incident sooner or later?

As far as the UK is concerned the threat cannot be dismissed. Only a week before the Litvinenko incident, the Foreign Office was briefing journalists on the dangers of terrorists staging a nuclear, or more likely a radiological attack, in the UK. This, thankfully, appears to be based on purely circumstantial information; there has been an increase of 'chatter' about such incidents on so-called jihadist websites. In reality, although limited quantities of radioactive materials are known to exist on the black market, they remain relatively scarce, and remote from the UK.

A more worrying possibility exists in the form of an attack on a facility used for storing radioactive materials. The Office for Civil Nuclear Security has recently had to upgrade its presence at nuclear sites such as Sizewell where armed guards have are relatively new phenomena. More recently still, a reporter from the Mirror newspaper was able to place a package on an unguarded train carrying highly radioactive waste, prompting further consternation from the authorities who have been compelled to reconsider the vulnerability of these highly dangerous materials.

Now here lies the cause for concern, for at the heart of the security system for nuclear materials there lays a conflict of interest; the same Government department that is responsible for setting the standards for security – and thus the costs to the industry – is the same Government department that is relying on the nuclear industry to build the nuclear power stations that it believes we now must have, the Department of Trade and Industry.

Alexander LitvinenkoLicensing for new nuclear reactors is still at an extremely early stage and little has been set in stone as far as security is concerned. In my opinion, the security of nuclear materials and installations should not be left to the same people that are falling over themselves to bring down the costs and speed up the planning process for nuclear new build. Topics of this nature are not purely of an academic nature – the DTi is holding a number of workshops and consultations on nuclear new build over the coming years, and the public are able to attend (see Nuclear Free Local Authorities, publications, critical reactions for further info). The picture of Alexander Litvinenko dying in his hospital bed is a personal tragedy. But perhaps it is a timely reminder to us all.